An audacious robbery in which a stolen JCB was rammed into a village cash machine containing thousands of pounds took place just yards away from an empty police station.
The station at Fernisky Road in Kells was closed and put up for sale in the summer after a decision by the Policing Board.
It has been claimed that had the facility been fully operational, police could have attended the scene in seconds rather than minutes.
As a result of the attack in the early hours of yesterday morning, which saw the robbers burn out and abandon the digger in the middle of the road, Main Street in the village was closed for most of the morning, disrupting traffic and preventing people from going about their business.
Banks are now heightening demands to introduce immediate new security measures amid claims that hit-and-run cash machine raids in Northern Ireland are running out of control. This is the 14th incident in little more than a year.
At least one and possibly two gangs are believed to be behind the crime spree — the overwhelming majority of which have been in Tyrone and Fermanagh — and have got away with tens of thousands of pounds.
Attempted robberies of ATMs have also occurred in Ahoghill and Carnlough in Co Antrim recently.
However, yesterday the raiders were successful, leaving a gaping hole in the side of Campbell’s SuperValu.
A pick-up type vehicle found burnt-out on Tully Road at the entrance of the Ross Park Hotel is being linked to the incident by the PSNI.
It is believed that the digger was stolen from works on the Larne Road in Ballymena.
Traditionalist Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, speaking at the scene, said that on-the-ground policing was needed to prevent such attacks in future.
“I am shocked and appalled that the sort of thing we are used to in ‘Bandit Country’ has happened in the heart of this village and that people had the audacity to do this.” he said.
“Around the corner is a police station which the Policing Board, in its folly, decided to close and sell.
“This could not have happened if we had a continuous policing presence in the village which could have responded in seconds rather than minutes.
“These people carried this out knowing full well that the nearest police officer was miles away.”
The nearest full-time stations to Kells are in Antrim and Ballymena — each around 10 miles away.
Resident Joe Spence said that the attack was more reminiscent of “Kesh than Kells”.
“I suppose it had to happen sometime. It has been happening all over the place and people knew it would reach places like this eventually, but this is something you would expect to hear of in Kesh not Kells,” he said.
North Antrim SDLP MLA Declan O’Loan said he believes that the same gang may be behind the most recent incidents while Alliance leader David Ford called the thefts “a worrying trend”.
A police spokeswoman said that the thefts have occurred throughout the province and were “not confined” to rural areas.
“Police are committed to providing a professional and efficient service to all areas of Northern Ireland and are confident that they have the appropriate resources to tackle this type of crime,” she said.
“All of these incidents are being thoroughly investigated and a number of lines of inquiry are being pursued.”
Detective Inspector Mark Dennison said that the yellow JCB digger was driven from roadworks at Larne Road in Ballymena to the village before the attack at 3.15am and that the thieves made off from the area in a white pick-up truck, later found burnt-out on Tully Road. He has asked anyone with any other information relating to the incident to call police on 0845 600 8000 or Crimestoppers on freephone 0800 555 111.